The first hosts since the 1930 inaugural edition of the competition to make their initial appearance in it on the very evening of the curtain raiser, perhaps they were gripped by stagefright. By Jiminy, you have to hope that was the case because they absolutely corpsed. In a fashion – particularly early on as Ecuador established a two-goal lead inside 31 minutes they effectively settled for thereafter – that bordered on the farcical.
Nothing makes sense about this World Cup. How FIFA ever allowed the tournament to be staged in this tiny Gulf state of only 2.9m residents - a mere 11 per cent of which are considered full citizens in order to limit how far the oil wealth of the nation is spread (OK, we know that the 2010 bidding process was all about the moolah). How they allowed the migrant workers required to build seven stadiums and all manner of infrastructure to be so dispensible, 7,000 believed to have lost their lives through callous working conditions. How the governing body could award their showpiece to a nation in which women’s rights and LGBTQi rights are so corrupted. Now, to that litany of sorrows can be added the fact that there is no footballing justification for the Qatari national team to be anywhere near a supposedly creme-de-la-creme global competition. They were that awful.
Much had been made of how, between all manner of international and challenge games with club sides, they had tuned up for their bow on the world stage by playing no fewer than 21 times in 2022. Moreover, with most countries only together for a matter of days, Spanish coach Felix Sanchez had the luxury of a two-month training camp with his squad to prepare for the finals. In a country with only 30,000 registered players, what became immediately apparent was that he didn’t possess any personnel with the capabilities to be operating at this level. Goalkeeper Saad El Sheeb boasts no fewer than 77 caps for Qatar. The 31-year-old was an absolute clownshow, though. An incomprehensible VAR offside call spared his blushes a mere three minutes in. It followed him charging out of his goal to meet a free-kick lofted into the right-hand side of the box from deep, and then seem to not know where his goal actually was as he scurried around to attempt to claim a ball whipped across before Enner Valencia nodded in. The automated offside technology decreed that Felix Torres’ knee was further towards goal than the keeper’s extremities when the initial bounce-around began. Yet, at the point the free-kick was struck, the Ecaudorian centre-half was behind a line of Qataris. It made no sense.
El Sheeb made no sense. Instead of settling down, he then clamped his hand round the ankle of Valencia as he bore in on goal shortly afterwards. A 13th minute penalty that Italian referee Daniele Orsato required no assistance from VAR to get right. To compound his initial ill-judgement, El Sheeb then allowed himself to be sold by Valencia trotting up to take the spot-kick, diving about a week early down to his right to give the Fenerbahce striker the easiest task of taping it into the vacant right corner.
With this goal, Valencia became his country’s highest World Cup scorer, the strike his fourth in a finals. No.5 duly followed in 31 minutes, the forward with all the space he needed to propel himself to meet Angelo Preciado's right-wing cross. The contact wasn’t clean, but it didn’t need to be to beat the – this time – blameless Qatari keeper.
The hosts looked so completely out of their depth in the opening period, it seemed they were set to suffer a pasting. Ecuador decided to go easy on them, and themselves, by opting to protect their two-goal lead after the interval. It made for a non-event of a second 45 in which the Al Bayt Stadium – which takes its design from traditional tents of nomadic people – was transformed. Initially full of noise and colour, much of it generated by the home supporters in the 67,000 crowd, thousands of them headed to the exits at the break.
They may think twice about returning for their nation’s Group A encounters against the more formidable Senegal and Netherlands. It was difficult to arrive at any real assessment of how Ecuador can be expected to fare against those two, such was the opening game mis-match. As a side that have drawn with Brazil and Argentina in recent times, and are now on a run of seven straight clean sheets, they certainly have something to offer. Even if their 2-0 success was notable for the fact that the 90 minutes witnessed only 11 combined shots – the joint-lowest for any World Cup game since these stats were first collated in 1966.
That is in sharp contrast to Qatar. They will surely end up as the poorest performing hosts across the 22 stagings of the World Cup. No country on their own soil in a finals has ever lost all three of their group games. You can put the kettle on for that changing in the next fortnight. It is delicious, when considering the dreadful backdrop to this ill-judged event, that after the fears of the tournament being an exercise in sportswashing the Qatar national team are on course to suffer an humiliating whitewashing. Let’s be brutal here, no tears will be shed over that fact.